Some of us have been saying this for years (we’ll try not to be too smug), and now a study bears us out: conservatives are unlikely to follow their policies through to their real-world consequences. Research by Jared Piazza of the University of Pennsylvania and Paulo Sousa of Queen’s University Belfast, published in the June issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, demonstrates that moral judgements regarding consequences differ wildly between conservative/religious persons and liberals.
The study included 688 participants whose moral positions on killing, assisted suicide, torture, incest, cannibalism, malicious gossip, stealing, lying, deception, betrayal, breaking a promise, breaking the law, and treason were gauged. The outcome? Conservative and religious individuals showed a “general insensitivity to consequences.” These participants consistently tended towards deontological ethics – which means they judged morality according to universal rules or divine authority. Liberals in the study promoted consequentialist ethics – they judged the morality of action based on the outcome. Sounds a bit like Rand’s objectivism vs. Bentham’s utilitarianism, doesn’t it?
While Piazza says that they can’t be certain whether being religious/conservative creates the rule-based ethics or if following rule-based ethics makes one become conservative/religious. The thing the study can state with conviction is that the two are related: being conservative or religious goes hand-in-hand with non-consequentialist ethics. Even further:
“I think it is more likely that being religious — and being religious in a particular way — is what promotes deontological commitments, and not the other way around. In a recent unpublished study I conducted with my colleague Justin Landy at Penn, we found that it is a particular sub-class of religious individuals that are strongly opposed to consequentialist thinking. Specifically, it was religious individuals who believe that morality is founded upon divine authority or divine commands, and that moral truths are not obtained via human intuition or reason, who were strong deontologists (i.e., they refused to find various rule violations as permissible even when the consequences were better as a result). This suggests that not all religious individuals are non-consequentialists; that is, religion does not necessarily promote a deontological ethic, though many religious institutions do promote such an orientation. Instead, it may be that people who are skeptical about the capacity for human beings to know right from wrong in the absence of divine revelation that tend towards a rule-based morality.”
One interesting exception to the rule concerned torture. American conservatives are “full-blown consequentialists” when it comes to torture, while religious persons are not. Piazza believes that this may be due to their conception of torture as, 1) punishment and 2) a military act. Conservatives see torture as a retribution and punishment for the criminal and that their torture, as long as it leads to the greater good, is justified. Religious individuals and liberals took the opposite view, that torture was, in itself, unacceptable.
Which leads us to an intriguing line of thought and some justification for liberals getting in an “I told you so.” If, indeed, American conservatives and fundamentalists can’t or won’t think their policies through, how can they ever be trusted to make them? If they can’t or won’t take into consideration the consequences that their policies will have on those who are affected by them, how can we allow them to dictate any policy at all? The study says that these people follow a divine law, that they refuse to accept that human reasoning and morals can be just as good (if not better) than religiously based morals. In a democracy – or even a republic, as some will argue that we are – how can we let one group’s divine authority dictate social law for all Americans? This is a compelling argument for many of us and it’s likely to get a lot of discussion. What do you think?